Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Sean Asks...Where does Jesus claim to be God?

Sean asked me recently, "Where exactly, does Jesus claim to be God? Not an 'If you say so' or 'You say it' type of answer but where he says, 'Yes, I am God.'"

It seems almost like a silly question. Jesus is God. Obviously in Scripture, He would have clearly said so. Right? Well, actually, not so much. In fact, this very lack of a clear self-identification led many in the early days of the Church to question, or even outright deny, that Jesus was God. Almost all of the early heresies attacked the notion of God as Trinity in some way or another, and most of them did so particularly by questioning if and how Jesus was God.

Jesus never actually says, "Yes, I am God" at any point in the Gospels, in so many words. However, He says (and does) many things that are only proper for God to say (and do). Had Jesus come right out and directly said that He was God, the Jewish people would have rejected Him outright. Instead, over His three year ministry, He slowly revealed His identity to His followers and the crowds.

There are key times in the Gospels, though, where Jesus makes claims that are proper only to God, such as when He claims that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom He wishes to reveal the Father (Matt 11:25-27), or when He points out that David calls Him Lord in Psalm 110 (Matt 22:41-45). At His trial, Mark's account (generally considered the earliest version) has Jesus saying "I am" to the accusations, and then declaring that they will see Him at the right hand of God, at which point they condemn Him of blaspheming (Mark 14:62). It's even more grand a claim since He uses the Divine Name, "I Am" as His answer.

Yet it is in John's Gospel that we see the clearest claims of Jesus to be divine. Seven times in John's Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself by saying "I Am..." We see from the reaction of the crowds that they understood quite well what He meant (cf. John 8:59; 10:31-33). In those instances, Jesus never denies His statements or His meaning, but He does, for the sake of His hearers, justify His statements in a way that makes their attempt to stone Him unjustifiable.

On the other hand, Jesus' followers do in fact make the claim that Jesus is God, such as St. John at the beginning of his Gospel, when he writes, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1); or St. Paul, when he writes "In Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Colossians 2:9), or "Jesus Christ, though being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but He emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave..." (Philippians 2:6).

Consider also St. Thomas' words upon seeing Jesus after the Resurrection, when he exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28) Rather than saying, "Hang on, there, Thomas, no one said I'm God," Jesus affirmed Thomas' statement, saying, "You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe" (v.29)

As well, Jesus did things that were proper only to God. His miracles went far beyond what any prophet had ever done. Prophets healed the blind. Jesus healed men born blind. Prophets raised the dead. Jesus did so after there was no hope of resuscitation. He claimed to forgive sins, and could read the thoughts and hearts of people. On the mountain, His transfiguration revealed the truth of His divine glory. And, of course, His ultimate divine act was raising Himself to life.

However, despite all this biblical evidence, there was still no little controversy in the Early Church (and still more controversy today) about Jesus' divinity. This occurred for a few reasons in the Early Church. First of all, even though the Apostles and their associates wrote the Gospels and the Epistles that make up the New Testament, these texts weren't compiled as "the New Testament" until significantly later. Not every church in the early centuries had every book of the Bible to use. They had to rely solely on the teaching of their bishop, which had been passed on to him through Apostolic Succession. His teaching came from the Apostles or their successors. Unfortunately, some early Christians either misunderstood or chose to reject this apostolic teaching, and reinterpreted the message to suit their preconceived ideas. Moreover, the Scriptural evidence of Jesus' divinity seems more obvious to us, who have had 2000 years of Tradition guiding our understanding of those Scriptures. Such interpretations weren't immediately obvious to everyone, which is why Scripture itself warns us, "At the same time, we must recognise that the interpretation of scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual" (2 Peter 1:20). Later, Peter writes again, referring specifically to St. Paul's letters, "In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture--to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16b).

This is why it's always dangerous to go by the Bible alone in developing our theology. The heretics of the early centuries, who denied Jesus' divinity, demonstrate clearly--as do those today who deny His divinity--that Scripture isn't necessarily enough to prove that Jesus is God.

When, in AD 325, the Council of Nicaea met to determine the truth about Jesus' divinity, their fundamental question was, "What did the Apostles teach?" The unanimous consensus was that Jesus was truly God. This can be seen from the Scriptures above, as well as by the teachings of the Early Church Fathers from the time of the Apostles until the Council of Nicaea. For example:
"For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God's plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit" (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 18:2 [AD 110]).

"For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who announced through the prophets the dispensations and the comings, and the birth from a Virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to reestablish all things; and the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity, in order that to Jesus Christ our Lord and God and Savior and King, in accord with the approval of the invisible Father, every knee shall bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth..." (Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

"There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is his subsistent wisdom and power and eternal image: perfect begetter of the perfect begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, only of the only, God of God, image and likeness of deity, efficient Word, wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, invisible of invisible, and incorruptible of incorruptible, and immortal of immortal and eternal of eternal.... And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever" (Gregory the Wonderworker, Declaration of Faith [A.D. 265]).
For some further reading on Jesus as God, specifically for more quotations by Early Church Fathers regarding Jesus' divinity, and a more detailed account of the Council of Nicaea, check out Adversus Da Vinci: Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
To Him who can keep you from falling
and bring you safe to His glorious presence,
innocent and joyful,
to the only God, our Saviour,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
be glory, majesty, authority and power,
before all ages, now and forever.

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